As Christmas turns into New Year's and then Valentine's Day, many single people's thoughts turn to finding love. And an increasing amount of people turn to online dating websites for help in finding their perfect match.
As online dating becomes more popular -- Americans are expected to spend as much as $932 million on Internet dating sites in 2011 -- it also attracts a growing number of scammers eager to bilk money from unsuspecting users.
The Federal Trade Commission warns Americans to tread carefully when entering the sometimes-murky waters of online dating, where the promise of love dupes many people into opening their wallets or giving access to bank accounts or credit cards.
The FTC lays out a typical scenario:
The scam artist creates a fake profile, gains the trust of an online love interest, and then asks that person to wire money -- usually to a location outside the United States.
The warning signs you may be dealing with a scammer:
- Wanting to leave the dating site immediately and use personal e-mail or IM accounts.
- Claiming instant feelings of love.
- Claiming to be from the United States but currently overseas.
- Planning to visit, but being unable to do so because of a tragic event.
- Asking for money to pay for travel, visas or other travel documents, medication, a child or other relative's hospital bills, recovery from a temporary financial setback, or expenses while a big business deal comes through.
- Making multiple requests for more money.
ConsumerAffairs.com has hundreds of complaints from both men and women who encountered scammers on such popular online dating sites like Match.com, Chemsitry.com, and Eharmony.com.
Mary Weston from San Mateo, California said that shortly after joining Chemistry.com, she was contacted by a man who claimed to be from nearby San Ramon, California but was currently on business in the United Kingdom. When he started calling her and asking for money, Weston knew something was up.
After some quick investigating, Weston discovered the man was calling from Nigeria, not the U.K. She cut off communication with him.
"Thankfully, I did not fall for his scam, and the only damages I incurred were for changing my telephone number," said Weston.
Unfortunately, some dating site users don't realize they're being scammed until it's too late.
Kathleen Marana of Iron Mountain, MI signed up for Match.com and was immediately contacted by a man who claimed to work in international logging and was overseas on business.
"We chatted for about 2 weeks and even talked on the phone. He said he...would fly to meet me when he was done with his current job. After two weeks in Nigeria, he called me for money and said he couldn't cash his checks there. I told him to go to an international bank and stop calling me."
Marana says the man harassed her with phone calls for three weeks until she gave in and sent him more money.
"To make a long story short, he continued to come up with one story after another to scam more money out of me," said Marana.
Scammers will oftentimes ask for money to be wired to them via Western Union or Moneygram. The FTC warns consumers that wiring money to someone they haven't met is the same as sending cash. Once it's gone, it can't be recovered.
For more information on Online Dating Scams visit OnGuardOnline.gov, the federal government's online safety website.
OnGuardOnline provides practical tips from the federal government and the technology industry to help you be on guard against Internet fraud, secure your computer, and protect your personal information.